PORTLAND -- Our first clue that the San Antonio Spurs’ league-best 11-game winning streak might be coming to a self-inflicted end came when coach Gregg Popovich announced his starting point guard to the assembled media:
That’s not who Popovich meant to say, obviously -- Cory Alexander was a bit player for the Spurs a long, long time ago. So long ago that your correspondent went to college with him.
The name he was looking for was Cory Joseph, but you could forgive Popovich his lack of familiarity. He had started All-Star Tony Parker at the point every game this season until Tuesday, when he opted to rest Parker and fellow star Tim Duncan, play his kids and "put some money in the bank" for the rest of the season.
With the Spurs starting Joseph, Richard Jefferson, Kawhi Leonard, DeJuan Blair and Danny Green, Popovich mostly chilled on the sidelines as his Spurs were thrashed by the Portland Trail Blazers 137-97, dropping the Spurs' record on the season to 23 wins, nine losses and one DNP-Coach’s Decision.
A 41-point Portland explosion in the first quarter -- nearly six times their output a night earlier in L.A. against the Lakers -- put the Spurs’ JV team out of its misery early, with newly instated started Jamal Crawford hitting four 3-pointers and getting fouled for three shots on a fifth.
Knowing what fate likely awaited, Popovich had some fun with it, slowly dragging us along before the game before revealing that Duncan and Parker wouldn’t play and who his other starters would be.
“What’s our rookie’s name, the guy we drafted? Kawhi? Kawhi Leonard at 3," he said.
Popovich opted to rest his stars because of the grueling “Rodeo road trip” that San Antonio is undertaking, when a rodeo takes over their home court at AT&T Center for three weeks. They haven’t played at home since Feb. 4 and have traveled to both coasts since. Both Parker and Duncan had played 38 minutes in Utah the night before, after they had played 45 and 41, respectively, in an overtime victory against the Clippers on Saturday.
“[Tim] and Tony need a rest. Everybody’s played a lot of games, and somewhere along the line, everybody gives somebody a rest. I think we’ve reached that point," Popovich said. "This is whatever it is, third game in four nights, X in whatever nights before that. I don’t know what it is any more, I lost track. But they’ve been going and going and going. If we don’t do it now, I think we’re asking for trouble later.”
Popovich debated just limiting Parker’s minutes before deciding to pull the plug entirely. Already missing Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter against a strong home-court team, this was a good night to mail one in.
“We’ve gone that way before, but really you play or you don’t," Popovich said. "You do that half-ass thing and they play a few minutes, it never works. They play and you should have rested them and they didn’t really get rest. So we’re just going to hold him out.”
Popovich has long been the league’s most devoted practitioner of this maneuver, selecting certain games to sit out his key players and keep them fresh for later in the season.
It’s a lesson Blazers coach Nate McMillan might want to learn; one night after keeping LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace on the court for 38 and 35 minutes in a hopeless situation against the Lakers, he had Wallace still out there with Portland up by 40 in the fourth quarter. It was their last game before the All-Star break, yes, but the cumulative wear and tear of this season is already taking a toll on Wallace in particular, who is averaging 35.8 minutes and had three straight single-figure outings before Tuesday night.
And it may also have taken a toll on Wes Matthews, who was on the court for no good reason in the fourth quarter when he sprained his left ankle. Fortunately for him, he’ll have eight days to recuperate before Portland plays again.
This is the type of move that’s made easier by Popovich’s ironclad job security. But it’s also an example of the willingness to think outside the box that has made him the dean of the league’s coaches. You don’t often say that about the side that just lost by 40, but the Spurs have always been willing to do things a little differently if it gives him them an advantage down the road.